This essay first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 04. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.
44 tonnes. 44 tonnes of paper and microfilm. This is the approximate mass of public documents destroyed by the National Intelligence Services in South Africa during a 6–8 month period in 1993—the year before the first democratic election.1 I can't quite imagine that volume and the hollow space it must have left—whole buildings, naked on the inside, with shelves exposed. I can't imagine what went missing, or, for that matter, what was already missing from that which went missing. The "etc."
In an article entitled "The Archive as Metaphor," which appeared in an edition of the Dutch journal Open, "(No)Memory—Storing and Recalling in Contemporary Art and Culture" (no. 7, 2004), media theorist Wolfgang Ernst stated that "the archive does not tell stories."2 The only narrative connection between an archive's disparate parts is constituted by the gaps located in-between and on the edges of its constituents—the "holes and silence."3 These gaps, Ernst claims, are waiting to be filled by imagination and by the historiographer, motivated by a sense of loss for those things considered not worth listing.4
Le Reste and The Rest
"How do we historicise the event of the dehistoricised?" asked the exhibition coordinator and future director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), Clive Kellner. Quoting Homi Bhabha's then recent publication, The Location of Culture, Kellner’s question was lodged not only in the broader socio-political context of a South Africa undergoing historic transitions in the mid-1990s, but also, more specifically, it was asked in relation to the gaps, or rather missing matters, laid bare by the second (and final) Johannesburg Biennale, "Trade Routes, History and Geography" (open from October, 1997).
Directed by Okwui Enwezor, who was at the time relatively unknown, the ambitious Biennale, which moved away from a national pavilion structure—thus aligning itself with the more contemporary formats seen in Istanbul and São Paulo—sought to reflect on the legacies of modernity, globalisation, and, with that, the notion of what Enwezor called, "the void of elsewhere."5
Made up of "individual curatorial maps" which included Kellie Jones's "Life’s Little Necessities,"6 "Graft" put together by Colin Richards, and "Hong Kong, etc." from Hou Hanru (amongst still more organisers), the Biennale spanned Johannesburg as well as Cape Town, and included about 145 artists—I say "about" because the number of official participants vacillates between sources. The project's multiple events and exhibitions occurred at a scale and scope unseen in South Africa, perhaps ironically, since the colonial exhibitions in the first half of the 1900s, and marked the most significant "coming out" for contemporary art from apartheid-induced cultural isolation.
With the National Archives of South Africa Act being reconstituted,7 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings taking place literally around the corner from "Trade Routes," it is perhaps surprising that the history of a biennial of such international and national significance was not swept up in the tide of what I like to call historical "filling-in-ism," awakened in the "new" post-apartheid South Africa. If we are to believe that the "object lessons"8 provided by mega-exhibitions are really just as important to the construction of citizen consciousness and public memory as institutional (hi)storytellings, then the second Johannesburg Biennale makes for a remarkable case study—particularly in its proposing of the artist-citizen.9 And yet, because of an exhibition's material quality as a messy space of communication, representations, experience, and performativity (particularly in this instance), any exploration requires more than a classification of lost contents and a published acknowledgment of the politics of the archive.10 Whatever its successes and failures, the project of telling "le reste" of the Biennale need not be limited to climate control.
It was only in 2009 at a congress in Utrecht, following a presentation entitled "A Conceptual History of Exhibition-Making" and a fairly dispassionate talk by Enwezor himself, that I—a Zimbabwean who only arrived in South Africa long after 1997—discovered just how impactful and yet non-historicised "Trade Routes" had been.
Entangling the notions of centre and periphery, but nonetheless allowing "unbridgeable differences"11 to remain, the Biennale had sought to give context to a set of dynamic practices which represented not only a "change of guard" in world powers—vivified most presciently by the ending of British rule in Hong Kong only a few months before the opening12—but also a change of "garde" perhaps in the co-presencing of a contemporary artistic world.
In complex scenarios created within Johannesburg's Art Gallery, the no-longer-existent Electric Workshop, as well as Cape Town's Castle and National Gallery, the multi-media offerings of artists such as Wenda Gu, Stan Douglas, and Carrie Mae Weems sat tensely together. The infrastructure and locations of these venues posed challenges to the hitherto unseen number of digital projections, performances, and installations meant to be housed within them. Unlike the first edition of the Biennale, according to Nigerian curator and critic Bisi Silva, "only painting was hard to find."13
For the young artist Simon Gush, sitting next to me in that congress in Utrecht more than a decade later and thousands of miles away, what had caught his attention as a young art student at the time was neither the impressive performance by Coco Fusco (Rights of Passage) which saw audience members barred from entering the exhibition until they’d stated their personal details and received an apartheid-inspired pass book; nor was it Cildo Meireles' jetty-like construction that filled an entire room (Marhulo, 1992–7).14 Rather, on encountering the very humble Untitled (Veteran’s Day) of Felix Gonzales-Torres from 1989—a stack of gradually diminishing offset prints consumed by visitors during the run of the exhibition—Gush realised that art could be, could do, something else.
Something "neo-conceptual"?15 Many of the projects included were coined using this term by Vasif Kortun in his catalogue essay "Conflict–Sharing–Consensus–Complicity–and Back Again." He defined the approach as from the margins—arguably resonant with the infamous legacy of "Magiciennes de la Terre," though other critics did not agree16—which accepted the institutional space of biennial as a kind of general one within which "cultural manifestations" could be made that met the shared expectations of "the institution, the artist, the curator, and to an extent, the public."17 Arguably, it was the limit of that "extent" within that nexus of expectations which further complicated the "Trade Routes" story: the part which couldn’t be chosen, catalogued, or curated. The part which, due to mismatched technical capabilities, the Biennale’s reliance on new media, and the use of a somewhat novel World Wide Web, proved elusive for many.18 The part where many first-timers to downtown Johannesburg (including not only foreigners but also some locals) felt confined to the perceived safety of exhibition venues. The part which saw the last edition of the Biennale partially closed on account of infrastructural overspending and insufficient visitor numbers by Johannesburg’s bankrupt municipality in December 1997, running only on half capacity until mid-January 1998.19
It is a murky business this navigation between the clear cut curatorial agenda of the Biennale, the subsequent noise of public debates over its relevance and accountability, and what might be called the less concrete impact of "Trade Routes" over time and space. And yet it is in wading through the dark waters between the project's mapped trajectories of modernism; reading against the grain of rasterised lines cutting across the VHS footage of a for-television Biennale documentary which contained rare installation panoramas and interviews with those who are no longer with us; and trawling through the reams of faded faxes containing intimate discussions between curators and artists, that the "etc." is found.
The nature of exhibitions is, of course, so much centred on bodily experience within real space and time. To revisit an exhibition, even the most straightforward one, involves more than the itinerising of disappeared artworks, but also the dredging up of ghosts of momentary encounters, ideals lost, and lessons learned. And while certain voices have predicted that the art history of the twentieth century will "no longer be a history of artworks but of exhibitions,"20 there remains something lacking in that historiographical process—where are the bodies? What were the snatches of conversation overheard? Tell us the gossip!
As mentioned in the introduction, exhibitions are deeply layered undertakings—particularly those occurring serially such as biennials and fairs—and are bound by historically determined economic, social, and political frameworks. Any act of historicising or, dare I say, re-enactment, would demand that we attend to the events in such a way that felt all their complex constellation of contentiously autonomous artistic expressions, curatorial criteria, external ideological forces, and the market.21 In short, the events happened within specific conditions. And while the good student has been schooled to treat every detail as sacrosanct, the "new historicist" position advocates the transformative power of those conditions and labour in the constructing of possible histories in the present—saying that "everything can be different from what it is; everything could have been different than what it was."22
Already in the 1970s, it was observed that exhibitions had begun to engender an ever-increasing self-consciousness, with the subject of exhibition being as much a part of the show itself as any one work of art.23 This performative "staginess" could be seen as quite central to "Trade Routes" in its reflection and deflection of various colonial modes of displaying w(hole) worldliness. However, to contend with that exhibiting of exhibition from another temporal location, Julian Myers reminds us to be wary of "half-abstracted meta-discourse," "confession," and "half-encrypted publicity."24 The making of a history of exhibitions must be more than anecdotal and less than a sacrament—suspended between the major and minor tones of existing art historical canons, between the "unresolved" and the "not just yet." Amen.
I can’t speak for the "international artworld." Only God and (probably) creative directors can do this.
—Colin Richards, curator of "Graft," 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, when asked about his opinion on the success and sustainability of the idea of a biennial in South Africa
"Trade Routes Over Time" was the title of a series of exhibitions made during 2012, initiated by the commercial gallery Stevenson, with branches in both the Biennale's city venues. Having been interested in the revisiting of historical exhibitions using the exhibition format itself,25 I was intrigued by the opportunity that arose to contribute—with some reservations about curating an independent project in a commercial space.26 Falling in-between an exhibition which tracked down artists who’d participated in the original Biennale, and another which speculated on the aesthetics and issues had there been a third edition, "If A Tree . . .," held at Stevenson in downtown Johannesburg, attempted the difficult task of gauging the ramifications of "Trade Routes." To challenge the often generalised discussion of the "how's and why's" I've mentioned, "If A Tree . . ." followed some specific, idiosyncratic, and primarily local paths leading out of the Biennale. None of the contributors had participated in the Biennale as artists, but had encountered it in more and less oblique ways.
The "Trade Routes" technician and now-established South African artist Paul Edmunds, for instance, narrated the politics of video screen installation, which in some venues required special technicians dispatched to Cape Town from Amsterdam due to the lack of experience with local staff. In a text he presented as a work, Edmunds recounted many further frustrations following rumours of the exhibition budget being allocated to unimaginable amounts of dry-walling in a select few Biennale venues, and towards the replacement of copious stolen projectors. And around the corner from that, a seven metre-long false wall stood as a curatorial recapitulation by Colin Richards, recalling the measures taken for Tracy Rose and her collaboration with prison inmate Michael Hanekom—grating against the structure of National Gallery.
This same wall then became the surface for a private performance by Lerato Shadi (Seipone, 2012), whose work in durational performance has been linked with the legacy of Rose. Over a period of 24 hours, Shadi wrote and erased autobiographical texts unseen by any audience save a camera. The messy pencil shavings and eraser traces peppering the floor were the only evidence of the event.
The Biennale's effects on and in the city were what inspired Heman Chong, in collaboration with architect and artist Eduardo Cachucho, to, from a distance, commission a text from writer Sean O'Toole, who'd attended many of the local fringe events, or what might be called the Biennale's underbelly.27
Another project came from an assistant to one of the artists in the Biennale in the form of a large, black felt-covered latex ball 3.5 metres in diameter. Dutch artist Yvonne Droge Wendel, who has not returned to South Africa since 1997, made Black Ball in 2000, and requires that passers-by assist in the rolling of this weightless but giant object through public spaces. Made specifically as a response to her experiences in Johannesburg, which included the theft of some equipment from the installation she worked on, the artist describes the object as a black spot or hole in space because of the surface's light-absorbing qualities—a blot on the landscape, something one would rather not remember. During the opening of the exhibition (and rush-hour traffic) the ball was rolled from the gallery, over the Nelson Mandela Bridge, constructed long after the closing of the Biennale, to the former site of the Electric Workshop.
What still remains on that spot, however, is the Africa Museum and Newtown theatre complex, which in the 1990s also contained the Rembrandt van Rijn Gallery. A grand name for a fairly minimal passage-like space run by Stephen Hobbs (member of the urban-focussed Trinity Sessions group). It was in this space—"not an easy one to work with" according to one article on the South African online journal artthrob.co.za—that Hou Hanru installed the exhibition component of "Hong Kong, etc." in October 1997. Intended to represent a kind of "micro-global city," the small space took on global proportions as it explored rapid development and the city as a phenomenon through the lens of the recently decolonised Hong Kong.28
Also included in the project were urban interventions in the townships of Soweto and Alexandra (where Hou Hanru had discovered an Afrikaaner who could speak Cantonese) by Yin Yilin, Fiona Tan, and others. An online space was also considered necessary for these reflections as the symbol of a new public place of mobility and connectivity. The project website (http://www.aica.co.za/hk) included an audience survey, online projects, and discourse around "The City as Real" and "The City as Dystopia" (to name a few themes)—with contributions by Oscar Ho, Saskia Sassen, and more. It was critiqued by many for containing too much of the real project which was in fact inaccessible to many without a computer or Internet connection.
Despite the limitations of space, physically and virtually, the exhibition did achieve its ambition of forming a non-Western axis between two situations in transition—"two places, two situations, two ends of the road."29 Placing the maquette cityscapes of the (then-)Zaire-based artist Bodys Isek Kingelez alongside Huang Yong Ping's famous ceramic hemispheres filled with branded items, The Doomsday (1997) made material conversations happen. The disorienting spinning of a bicycle through Beijing in Zhu Jia's Forever (1994) made for an interesting comparison with the experimental video work of neighbouring Hong Kong-based artist Ellen Pau. Her Drained IV (1996–1997) mysteriously described online as "video installation/installation size unknown,"30 comprised, according to Pau, two monitors showing a recording of an hourglass housed in a container that rotated at the same speed as the videos. No documentation of the piece installed in the Johannesburg exhibition was published. Except for a split-second shot of the work included in the documentary made of the Biennale by Hedwig Barry and Belinda Blignaut, the artist was never informed that her work had even arrived in South Africa, nor was she asked to provide installation instructions.
This story was relayed to me by Ellen Pau herself over a beer with Qinyi Lim (curator and residency host at Para Site, Hong Kong) and Michelle Wong (researcher at the Asia Art Archive) during my research residency in Hong Kong from December 2013–January 2014. In light of the many missing issues mentioned in this article, the story of Drained IV is not unique, as, even according to the exhibition catalogue colophon, a total of nine contributors to "Hong Kong, etc." were regrettably not credited in the publication.
With all the lapses in communication, the limits of connectivity, it was the common-ness (perhaps we could say the "commonwealth" of a different sort) of things not listed, constituting the "etc." in "Hong Kong, etc." that finally made sense to me in retrospect, and having never seen the exhibition with my own eyes. While it may be the caveat of great explorers to bear direct witness to ". . .," it is precisely that ". . ." wherein the performance of minor historical reconstruction waits and the search for empty shelves commences.31 On the maps of past explorations, we begin to trace the collective social dynamisms and contingencies surrounding individual creative trajectories, and to plot a course that circumnavigates the perhaps familiar paths. Everything and nothing is worthy of capture and exchange as we begin to trade routes.
2. Open Key Texts, 28.
4. There's a wonderful line that sounds something like this in Chris Marker's script for his film Sans Soleil (1983) when the narrator recounts the personal list-makings of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting during the eleventh century. See: http://www.markertext.com/sans_soleil.htm
5. Direct quote from interview in the documentary produced for the local South African broadcaster, "Culture in the Contact Zone: the second Johannesburg Biennale 1997," co-directed by Hedwig Barry and Belinda Blignaut.
6. Catalogue, "Trade Routes: History + Geography," 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, Johannesburg, 1997, 7.
7. No. 43 of 1996.
8. As outlined by Tony Bennet in his seminal "The Exhibitionary Complex," new formations no. 4, Spring, 1988, 76.
9. Enwezor interview, "Culture in the Contact Zone."
10. Though the immense labour of redressing and transforming archival practice has been seen in inspiring cases such as the project and publication Refiguring the Archive, eds., Carolyn Hamilton, et al. (David Phillip Publishers, Cape Town, 2002), begun at Johannesburg’s Witswatersrand Graduate School the year that the Biennale was meant to close. Rather, this comment is meant to imply that further methods need to be developed within an exhibitionary sphere in terms of the history of curatorial endeavours.
11. Enwezor, catalogue introduction entitled, "Travel Notes: Living, Working and Travelling in a Restless World," 8.
12. Bongi Dhlomo, catalogue preface, "All Routes Are Good," 6.
13. Bisi Silva, "The Johannesburg Biennale," on artnet.com, 1998.
14. Many of the works eventually included in the Biennale are hard to confirm save via visitors' experiences or installation shots—neither of which appears in the exhibition's hefty catalogue produced long before the contingencies of production process reared their heads.
15. Vasif Kortun, catalogue essay, "Conflict–Sharing–Consensus–Complicity–and Back Again," 37.
16. See Dan Cameron and Eleanor Heartney's responses to the Biennial in Artforum January 1998, and Art in America June 1998, respectively.
17. Kortun, 37.
18. Throughout written responses to the Biennale, echoes of the digital divide emerge repeatedly within descriptions of the laptop toting "arterati," always in their black ensembles, which descended on the city centres of Johannesburg and Cape Town—which in the case of the former was not a touristic hot spot.
19. Budget problems and an antagonistic local press plagued the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, resulting in the event's unplanned, temporary closure over the Christmas break, and the bankrupt city council sending early dismissal notices to the Biennale's staff. During the opening, many South African artists and audience members complained of the exhibition's inaccessibility and lack of engagement with the community; one local newspaper went so far as to post on telephone poles around the city advertisements for its evening edition, asking in bold type, clearly legible to motorists speeding by: "Is the Biennale a Fraud?." Jen Budney, "Who's it For? The 2nd Johannesburg Biennale," in Third Text, no. 42, Spring 1998.
20. Florence Derieux, "Introduction," Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology, JRP Ringier, Zurich, 2007, 8.
21. See Julian Myers "On the Value of a History of Exhibitions," in The Exhibitionist, No. 4, June 2011, 24–28.
22. Stephen Greenblatt, Resonance and Wonder, Routledge, New York City, 1990, 223.
23. Ref. Daniel Buren, 1972.
24. Myers, 28.
25. My thesis entitled "The Principles of Packing," University of Cape Town, Cape Town, 2012, explored the historical case study of an exchange of travelling contemporary art exhibitions between Britain and South Africa on the eve of apartheid.
26. Interestingly, these galleries are some of the only free-entrance art spaces in the city, with national institutions so underfunded that a fee is required.
27. The text "A Beautiful Mess" (2012) can be accessed at https://sites.google.com/site/autonomydocs/file-cabinet/Sean_Beautiful_FINAL.pdf?attredirects=0&d=1
28. Hou Hanru, "Working in Johannesburg for Hong Kong etc.," in Atlantica International, 149.
29. Hou Hanru, interview by Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt in July, 1997. Available on http://universes-in-universe.de/car/africus/e_hanru.htm
31. The work of the Archives Action Group (est. 2009) in Hong Kong alerted me to the similarly alarming destruction of public records within the city’s shifting technocracy. http://archivesactiongroup.org
Etc. or et cetera: Indicating that a list is too tedious or clichéd to give in full, i.e., we've all got to do our duty, pull our weight, et cetera, et cetera. Latin, from et "and" and cetera "the rest" (neuter plural of ceterus "left over").
All film stills are from Culture in the Contact Zone, Johannesburg Biennale 1997, by Hedwig Barry and Belinda Blignaut.
All images courtesy of the author unless otherwise stated.
Clare Butcher is a teacher, curator, and writer who cooks. She currently reads a lot with students at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Piet Zwart Institute. She is also a member of the School of Missing Studies at the Sandberg Institute.
- Wed, 1 Apr 2015